The Little Diva

All right, some of you Moms of little 2-5 year old girls know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some of you have Divas, and you know who you are!

I have a little girl who just turned four, and she is a recovering Diva.  We’ve stopped catering to her hand and foot– you know, like removing the brown M&Ms out of her pile, making sure her ruffles are straight, and helping her to coordinate clothing.  Generally speaking, we had stop fussing over her.  Which is REALLY hard when you have a sweet little girl!  You just want to buy them little hair things, shower them with gifts, and sweet talk her all the time!  They are born so precious and covered in pink, and there never seems to be a right moment to toughen up.

But all this fussing only causes the Little Diva to emerge. You know, the twirling around in the living room for all your visitors to admire, the patting your hair sweetly when they want something, the fussing over having the right color nail polish or “make-up,” the refusal to go out with you just because they’re pouty.  Think teenage drama queen in miniature.

Diva-personality can be created for a variety of reasons.  In my case it was because I had three boys in a row before I had a girl, so I was tempted to indulge.  In the case of some relatives of mine, the parents simply favored girls over boys.  Girls were “easier” and pretty while boys were difficult and rough.  In the case of a friend of mine, she simply had a lot of girls in the household!  And she herself was kind of a drama queen, so the climate was conducive.

Which brings me to the main point: it is naturally easy for a girl to slip into this caricature, and easier if you do lots of fussing.  Somewhere around the age of 1.5-2.5, little girls catch onto the uniquenesses of being a girl.  They understand concepts like “matching” clothes MUCH earlier than boys, the importance of icons like Disney princesses on their lunchbox, and the importance of “girl” toys, etc.  Because girls mature faster than boys, their social and emotional awareness kicks in early. They notice the special treatment they get, even if they can’t articulate it, and they can start milking it.

Now I do think treating girls differently than boys and giving them gentler treatment is appropriate.  I don’t think androgynizing our girls is the answer.  But it’s easy to go too far.  A typical girl can handle only about a year of special treatment before it starts to take over her personality.  Ask a mom with a Diva of 6 or 7 years old… by this point, it’s much harder to get the spirit out.

So around our house, I have made more of an effort to make my girl run with the boys.  I still treat her with more emotional sensitivity, I think, because she puts that out there.  But I don’t give in to her specificities, or hold back discipline if her brothers were in the same position.  For example, I no longer do the clothes thing with her unless we’re going somewhere where she needs to dress up and look pretty.  I used to dress her every day and make a fuss over this and that, or her hair, now I let her dress herself, praise herself, and I just do her hair matter of factly.  When we went to a friend’s wedding, of course, I made the big deal about it and brought out the curling iron, lace slip, perfume, etc.  She loved it.  But I don’t indulge her on a daily basis so she grows up thinking clothes and beauty are the point.  I think I bought into my relative’s advice before that all the girly stuff was really important in the beginning… but now I see it as a main route to Diva-land.  When I hear about Suri Cruise criticizing her mom’s clothes, I am even more sure! Cute at 4 maybe, but not for long.

So I’ve started to make progress on the external appearances thing.  And I plan to be beating back that demon for a long time.  For discipline, I have had to make more of an effort there too. I think I went lighter on my girl because she always understood what she did wrong and made efforts to change her behavior… TOTALLY opposite my three boys!  My three boys I can scream at and they aren’t damaged at all. I can correct the same thing day after day and they nonchalantly seem not to notice.  And two of them have a really hard time understanding anything interpersonal (i.e. like “you know if you keep cheating like that, your brother isn’t going to want to play Candyland with you anymore right?”).   But my girl was naturally conversational about these topics by 3 years old, so I figured just talking was really enough.

Wrong!  Girls definitely need to be on the same discipline standard as boys, or they will start becoming difficult. Maybe even slightly tighter before their emotions take control.  They may not keep doing the bad behavior as outright as boys do, but they will float around the gray area, whining, pouting, sulking, resisting, and trying to get their way by making you emotionally cave.  If you don’t punish these things (or discipline before it starts), you will definitely get a Diva.  Some divas will be strong-willed, and some will be sweetly passive aggressive, but all divas know exactly where the line is drawn and will dance around just before it.  Whereas most mothers of boys are tired from their boys crossing the line all the time, mothers of girls get tired from trying to prevent their girls from crossing it.  If this is confusing, just think of teenage behavior again.  Teenage boys tend to defy and do what they want because they think their parents are ridiculous.   Teenage girls tend to make life emotionally draining for Mom and Dad until they’re ready to shake her!

So I apologize if this post is too stereotypical.  It is simply the easiest way to describe a very real phenomenon.  Your little girls, if treated like little girls, have the propensity to rival Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in drama.  Even though they are only tiny people, they have great big emotions, and can learn the basics of manipulating them even before they can understand what they’re doing.  It is your responsibility as the parent to stave this off and keep doing so at every stage, for the betterment of the whole family.  Especially if you have more than one girl.  You want your girls to feel precious and fussed over, but only to the point that it helps others bond with them.  If the dad or brothers feel resentful, that’s a warning sign.  Also, attention can help them develop positive feelings about themselves and femininity.  But if it starts taking over their personality or the family dynamic, you have to rebalance the priorities.  Girl for the family, not the family for girl.

I Hope This Isn’t ADD!

If your child has authentically diagnosed ADD or ADHD, please do not read any further! This is only for moms with ADD-wannabes =)

So my second son, at 6yrs old now, has many of the classic symptoms.  He is distracted by everything.  He has sensory issues, so he hears, smells, and feels everything whether it is the heat coming on, a truck backing up on the interstate, or even the smell of the oven.  This doesn’t help.

But even when I get him “focused” and working, he is very distractable.  He’s an artistic type, so he gets derailed into doodling on his workbook pages, or writing little notes to me on them when he comes to a difficult problem.  He can write a whole misspelled paragraph to me about a one-word blank.  He also likes fonts, so he starts decorating his “Ts” and “Fs” with little serifs or italic/bold-faced type.  Then his pencil needs sharpening, so he spends about 10 minutes doing that only to have it snap off when he gets back to his spot.  He starts that process over.  I homeschool him, and he can easily take from 9am to 12noon just doing two or three tasks.

But he’s extremely intelligent.  So I try not to harp.

It’s hard though.  His ADD spills over into other areas too, like getting dressed, tying shoes, brushing teeth.  It is very frustrating.  And yet, I realize it is partly developmental.  As you know, boys are over-diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  Sometimes husbands and grandfathers hear about it and believe they’ve suffered with it their entire lives.  If it is maladaptive, maybe they do.  But it could just be part of the male brain.  Male brains are like “waffles,” as one celebrated author says, and topics are compartmentalized–in the brain, each subject has its own box separate from the others, and men jump from box to box, subject to subject.  Little boys do this too, which is how they get so far off track.  Things are just INTERESTING to them, so they think about it, cutting off what they were originally doing.  My girl doesn’t seem to have this problem, but I am sure there are many girls who do, especially creative and  free-thinking ones!

There are many blog posts and books on this subject, so I won’t belabor it here.  The real reason I am writing this post is because it dawned on me just today that there is something  redeeming about ADD wannabes.

Other than the gender component, I had thought that perhaps ADD was personality-related in the sense of learning style.  My second son is very analytical–obviously if he’s into fonts!  But something about this hypothesis wasn’t accurate because my first son is also analytical and has no attention problems at all. He has laser-like focus.  Then this morning I was teaching my third son Language Arts (he’s five) and I saw some of the same ADD symptoms beginning to crop up on him as he worked.  “Oh no!!!” I thought to myself.  “I have to stop this from happening so it doesn’t consume him like my second boy!”

Then it hit me.

He THINKS about his work as he does it.  My third son is not analytical at all.  Not even a little–it took him forever to learn his letters because A and B all looked the same to him.  (My other two sons picked them up before they were 2yrs old).  My third guy isn’t picky about anything, is very independent, talks in general statements, and picks up concepts easily.  But as he was working on his vocabulary and spelling, he was actually trying to think about what the words meant.  He wasn’t interested in just reading them (“cast”… “task”… “track”), he was asking me questions about them.  Then as I would explain them, we would get off track as that led to more questions.  Sometimes we got off for 5 minutes talking about something six degrees away from “cast.”  And I’d have to steer us back to the page at hand.

That’s when I realized that my second son does the same thing.  He tries to really understand things on a heart level.  He is very artistic, very scientific, and has a high IQ.  His vocabulary–especially for a young boy–is excellent.  So he ponders his work and goes slowly, thinking about things as he goes through.  This causes the distraction and “six degrees” problem.

My first son, however, who is 8 and has no attention problems, is analytical but doesn’t think AT ALL when he does his work.  He breezes through it as quickly as possible.  We have trained him to try to get the right answers, so he does know how to slow down and rethink a question with prompting.  But I can tell when I talk to him that he doesn’t like to think!  He is a type A personality and does things by the book, as perfectly as he can and gets good grades for it.  But he’s the type of  boy who can read an entire book and know very little of what he read.  Or misread the directions on a page and complete the entire page according to a rule without it dawning on him that his answers don’t make sense.  Or look up a word in the dictionary and read the definition four times and still have no mental picture.  He’s got a great memory and devours books, but has a terrible vocabulary and makes few connections on his own.  (i.e. he’s a history buff but asked me the other day whether July 4 was an American holiday.)  He just has a superficial understanding of most things and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  Terrible commentary on how getting straight A’s doesn’t correlate to comprehension!

So maybe this is just the way it works: quick and brief, or slow and comprehensive.  If you have a child with attention problems too, you can be grateful that s/he’s probably a thinker.  They might grow up to be one of those kids who are terrible test takers but, if they took it correctly, would score extra high.  After all, it’s only if you think about what you’re doing, can you can think enough to get distracted!

I’m not trying to make light of attention problems.  I definitely think the kindergarten age is the optimal moment to teach this study skill– if you can teach your child to sit still and focus when they’re five-six, they will have a huge advantage.  But I have more grace on my boys now.   My kindergartner is clearly building his vocabulary and knowledge base, even though it seems like we labor over getting one page completed.  It’s developmental and important not to skip.

The Shy Child

I am entitling this the “shy” child, although one of my sons who prompted me to write this is perhaps not the typical “shy” child as much as the cautious or worried one.  I have been studying this behavior a lot recently and, now that he is turning six, looking for appropriate ways to help him conquer fear and anxiety, especially socially.  He has basically had this problem since he was little.

Looking back, I can see that he was even a “shy” baby.  He was small and weak, clingy but happy.  He was easy—didn’t cry a lot, napped all the time, yet sometimes wouldn’t hang onto a feeding enough to get the full amount.  He gave up easily, grew up behind his physical milestones, fearful of trying to walk, and screaming his head off when I walked away from him, starting at about 8months old and ending I’m not sure when.  Probably at 16 months when he finally tried walking, and found out he could do it perfectly by then.  Toilet training was a nightmare, separation anxiety was terrible, and he sucked his thumb for a long time.  (He still does, only at night though).  We found out he had a barrage of sensory and motor issues, got him occupational therapy for that, and would stutter when he didn’t get enough sensory input that day.  He generally liked people though, he was exceptionally bright and talkative at an early age, and taught himself to read.  I never had any real concerns.

This may or may not describe your child, but the point is that the shyness and fearfulness began at an early age and it has been tricky to help him grow out of it.  We have only just gotten to the place where he was ok enough to do kiddie gymnastics at the YMCA.  He breaks down and cries so easily that most classes are a nightmare.  And most teachers don’t have enough patience!  Let’s face it… I don’t always.  I have a unique empathy for what he’s going through, as his mother, but sometimes I can’t handle an avid crier.  I  just can’t understand why games are not fun, competitions are so threatening, and most stuff he won’t even try.  And I don’t mean like trying out for the soccer team.  I mean, like he won’t try to throw a nerf ball through the Little Steps basketball hoop.  Or use a friend’s kiddie tramp in the yard.  Little things, you know?

Well, now that he’s older (6yrs) and so precocious, I have been able to have some good conversations about it with him.  And I’ve been reading up on the subject.  And here are some things I have learned, which might help you deal with your clingy and fearful one.  (I can tell this is going to be a long post, sorry!)

1.  Shyness is not a crisis. Don’t panic!  (Maybe I should have said, “shyness isn’t autism” =)  Even though it seems that everything for little kids in America is geared towards sanguine, extroverted children, eventually the more reserved ones will fit in.  For kids who are wary of excitement, the world can be a tough place.  As parents who want to see our kids happy so much, we just have to accept this.  There are melancholy types, and we may have one.  My second son is a stereotypical Eeyore, Gloomy Gus, or whatever and it has been a little difficult for me to accept this.  Yet I see the wonderful things God has placed within him which are going to make him successful when he’s older.  I see his empathy, thoughtfulness, gentleness, carefulness, and discernment.  He is analytical, scientific, extremely emotionally aware, and will probably end up in a counselor, teacher, therapist, doctor, or otherwise helpful role when he’s an adult.  I don’t want to squelch this even though I get frustrated that he won’t join in the Uno game or kiddie pool =)

2.  Share the positive things with the child. Whereas my other three kids are blissfully unaware of their strengths and weaknesses, and charmingly prideful about everything, my shy child is painfully self-conscious.  This makes it all the more important to start teaching shy children about themselves.  They are ready to hear it, actually, since they are already thinking about it.  And if I don’t interrupt the “bad tape” that my son is playing inside his own head (“I can’t do this.  I’m too short.  I’m not good enough…”) then it will take over.  I have to replace that bad tape with a “good tape.”  So I do this by sharing those good things I see… how neat it will be to see what he’s going to do when he grows up.  Even at 5yrs old, he was thinking about it and whether we have an accurate vision is not the point as much as it is that there is a purpose for his personality.  (Always approve of any idea they have, about what they want to be when they grow up, even if it is ridiculous or a bad fit.)  Subconsciously, I want to shift my child’s perception of himself from “my problems are my identity” to “I’m destined for great things, so I can overcome the challenges.”  Sort of like talking to the average 13 yr old who feels inadequate!

One way to help a little child who’s insecure is to draw a picture of a big bucket and put their name on it.  Then talk about what good things go in that bucket, like “kind” or “thinker” etc.  You can list these things and draw arrows into the bucket, and then put the picture somewhere they will see it a lot, like on the frig, or over a desk.  For non-readers, draw a small picture next to each word, like a heart next to “kind” or a thinking face next to “thinker.”  They will soon come to know these words as they see it daily, and you can bring it out when you have your talks.

3.  Teach positive thinking. This is kind of the same as #2 except more practical.  I actually teach my son to narrate what he’s doing, sometimes, instead of playing his “bad tape.”  The ol’ standby of “I think I can, I think I can” is ok, but my son is such a realist that “I’m putting this lace around this one, and then I’m pulling through” is better for him.  It replaces “I can’t do this, It’s too hard” while he’s practicing tying his shoes.

Also related to this is watching your language.  Shy is not a bad word, nor is sensitive, and the reserved child needs a vocabulary to talk about the issue as they grow.  Yet the shy child already feels like everything they do is under a microscope.  They feel that the problems they have are huge, but their strengths are insignificant.  If you’re careful how you speak, it can reverse this kind of thinking.  Obviously try not to scold or criticize, but more practically, try to give instruction instead of correction whenever possible.  And when appropriate, sandwich the instruction within two loving statements like, “I know you’re trying really hard to do that right, which is great.  I think you have to hold the bow in one hand while you loop with the other.  Then it will be easier.”  Pretending like everything is NO BIG DEAL is key.

4.  One-on-One time is huge. The shy child tends to appreciate the one-on-one time the most.  All kids need it, but the more tender or reserved child often doesn’t get it because they aren’t around as much, or are gentler, or whatever.  So make time and go get them if they won’t acknowledge the need to come to you.  And beware of leaving the child who plays alone in the corner, alone.  They probably don’t want to bother people, or have conflict, but direct eye contact and engagement goes a long way in warding off problems.  In particular, it keeps them from developing passive aggressive behavior later on, when they realize they need things but don’t know how to communicate or get what they need the right way.  Connect, connect.

One of the best ways to do this is create a personal ritual.  It can become very valuable to them, even if it’s just a bedtime story, or a weekly Saturday breakfast out, or whatever.  Even a non-demanding two year old is able to pick up on a ritual like this, and enjoy munching a bagel with you at Panera.  It tells them “I love you, and I like being with you.”  This will counter that negative tape they play and make them happier inside.

5.  Reward and Celebrate courage. The shy child is reluctant to engage social activities often because they have performance anxiety.  They may not know what to say, or to do, and so they are afraid of getting in the game.  And they may feel pressure to get things right the first time, do a good job, etc.  Knowing what “should” happen or what going to kindergarten “should” feel like causes them great cognitive dissonance as things “actually” happen or they experience what they “actually” feel.  Then they feel guilty or ashamed.  It is a very adult-like trap, really.  It takes some undoing.

Part of the undoing is to obviously teach as many skills as possible.  Shy children in particular need to learn eye contact, hand shaking, phone skills, manners, and what to say when they don’t understand or don’t know.   Many cannot turn off the fear or waterworks once they start, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed for it or convinced out of it until they’re ready.  Time-outs are often helpful.  They also need to practice with non-threatening people or contexts (even stuffed animals!) if actual performance is involved.  But once teaching and practice are done, then the key to reward and celebrate when they step out.  For another child, starting a conversation is not worthy of praise, but for the shy child, it is.  Speaking up, telling someone what they need, asking for help, trying something new, going to a party, singing in circle time at nursery school, offering help, etc…. all these things should be taught and then heavily rewarded no matter what the results are.  I’m not against giving shy kids candy for rewards.  It is a very tangible and non-consuming way to tell a 4yr old, “Great job.  I’m happy with your effort.”  Now with my shy child, giving him the incentive of an M&M to do something is different… it doesn’t work because then he feels all this pressure to perform to get that M&M.  This actually shuts him down and makes him cry.  So do negative consequences being threatened, obviously.  But an incentive is different from a reward.  His face does light up when I catch something good and reward him for it, probably because there was no pressure or expectation involved.  Find a balance, but reward based on the effort not the outcome.

6.  Get sensory and motor issues checked out. For my son, some occupational therapy (and now kiddie gym) has gone a long way in helping him deal with his anxiety.  Not every shy child has sensory issues, but probably more do than we know.  When a child actually feels everything too loud, too fast, too bright, etc., the world is an overstimulating and scary place.  Getting some occupational or physical therapy can raise their tolerance levels, as well as give them non-threatening one on one attention in the areas they need strength.  When I first sought testing for my son (then just 3yrs), everyone was so worried because of his fears and crying during the exams.  They thought he was depressed, had generalized anxiety disorder, and needed a neuropsychological exam.  I feared that only medication was down that path, so I persisted in my quest to take the more physical route.  I truly believed strength and self-confidence was at the root of the anxiety, so I insisted we try that first.  What do you know, it worked!  So if your child is afraid of parties, gyms, playgrounds, malls, etc, it is definitely worth checking this out.  My son not only hears the lowest sounds on the hearing machine, and sense all touches and smells more than anyone else, but he has bad visual discrimination skills so he can’t spot things well.  He can’t see me in a crowd, see Daddy coming back to the car, sense where he is when he turns a corner in the library, or get to the trash can and back in a restaurant without getting confused.  This of course contributes to startling and anxiety but is, thankfully, one of the easiest things to work on at home through worksheets, I Spy/Where’s Waldo, puzzles, and other visual tracking activities (try “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” by J. Oberlander for preschooler ideas.)   In my opinion, if there are sensory/motor issues behind social anxiety, you’ll never get the shyness to abate just by tackling them psychologically.  They need skills and desensitization too.

Chores/Milestones Your Kids Can Actually Do

So the other night I was skimming through a very popular mothering book from the 70s, and I came across the chore section where—i am NOT kidding—“holding the wood” while Mom saws it was an example chore for a TWO year old.

Ok, so I am not sure WHOSE two year olds are ready for holding wood or helping saw, but it definitely isn’t mine.  And I am pretty sure the book wouldn’t have been published today with the AAP and that kind of suggestion!  Fearful as we all are 😉

Now I am like many other moms who think the Culture of Fear has gotten out of hand (we have to say NUTS are included in Almond Joy bars, and all playground equipment is plastic and spongy now).  But I still don’t stoop to quite the amount of security that these co-authors had.  And yet, I wonder why our kids today are so dependent on us, as compared to the earlier days.  There must be a connection.  I always get a great laugh when I watch “The Patriot” and one of the stony-eyed militia men tells his curly red-headed five year old, “Look after your mother!”  That’s a sweet joke of course, but there WAS a day when twelve and thirteen year old boys actually were supposed to look after their mothers and work the farm when Dad was away at war.  Do you know any 12 or 13 year olds who could do that today?  Not many.

So while I am pondering this loss of maturity, I realize I’m not doing that much better in my own home.  When it comes to jobs, I have a tendency to do them myself because my kids seem so… so… dumb.  Sorry.  But they are!  They ask ridiculous questions, can’t see the obvious, and have less coordination than their PE teachers are aware of.  My own fault, no blame here.  Also two of them can’t read and two of them are very short for their age.  But I am looking to transfer ownership and responsibility to my young brood—to challenge them to pitch in and take care of their stuff—without assigning them jobs which involve saws or fire.

But what is age-appropriate these days?  What is expected?  (I should get some info from a person with a farm.)  But here is a list of chores/jobs that I have so far found to be age appropriate.  Each age differs SO much.  And gender and birth order makes a difference (My oldest are three boys).  And personality.  But here’s where we have so far been successful.  (I will add more jobs in later as I think of them).

3-4 year olds

  • pick up own toys, including outside and bathtub
  • clean up own crayons, play doh, puzzles, school materials
  • put own dishes in dishwasher
  • help water plants
  • put laundry into piles (by color, category, or owner)
  • choose own clothes, get dressed mostly by themselves
  • gives everyone a placemat, napkin, spoon, etc
  • helps put reachable groceries away
  • puts stuffed animals, pillows back on own bed
  • can “help” wipe, clean a mirror, use a dustpan, etc.
  • runs things to the trash
  • lays out food on plates, with prompting
  • stacks things (cups, tupperware, etc)
  • hangs own things on the frig
  • turns TV on and off correctly, or other easy buttons

4-5 year olds

  • organize their own backpack, bookshelf, closet
  • puts things in the right folders, stickers in the right spots
  • change a CD/DVD correctly (with training)
  • work the basic remote buttons (with training)
  • run things up and downstairs, to the right places
  • put their own laundry away correctly
  • dusts
  • sets/clears table with help
  • helps bring in light groceries
  • can use automatic water/ice dispenser correctly (with training)
  • helps plant flowers, garden
  • helps clean out car
  • holds a flashlight for you
  • can plug and unplug more reliably

5-6 year olds

  • wipe kitchen table off, use sponge without too much water or mess
  • wipes most spills up ok
  • sweep crumbs with a dustpan (well)
  • brush own teeth (correctly, without supervision)
  • buttons own shirts, snaps
  • can help with laundry, using a stool
  • puts mail in and retrieves mail, remembers flag (not on a crazy busy street)
  • can put most groceries away, including the refrig/freezer correctly
  • toilets without help anymore (except occasional emergencies)
  • can change own clothing (dirty, wet, hot/cold) without prompt
  • makes own bed
  • straightens own blankets, folds blankets/towels
  • can bring you over a hammer, screwdriver, etc. reliably
  • helps a younger child with clothes or shoes
  • can help a younger child at nighttime with an easy problem
  • learns to put on own seatbelt
  • can do a “loop” around our neighborhood sidewalk, on a scooter independently (not a busy street)

6-8 year olds

  • comb own hair (correctly, without supervision)
  • learns to tie shoes, harder clothes independently (i.e. belts, zippers)
  • take ownership of dishes/dishwasher, plan ahead to run or not run
  • folds laundry correctly, pairs and rolls socks, puts things on hangers
  • sets own watch/clocks/timers
  • can do assignments independently, coming back when it’s over or there’s a problem
  • makes lists
  • can change/replace soap, toilet paper, paper towels, etc. with a little prompting
  • can (finally) assist in some minor home renovating projects =)
  • can take own bath with slight, occasional oversight
  • wipes a mirror, counter, or toilet correctly
  • use a dustbuster, or canister vac with some help
  • uses toaster and microwave correctly, with some supervision
  • can ride a bike independently on our street
  • can open and shut most car doors without incident

Oldest Child Syndrome

I am not huge on birth order theory, but now that my two best friends and I all have a bunch of boys, it seems clear that there really is something to the Firstborn Syndrome!

Perhaps you’ve seen it. You try so hard to do everything right with your firstborn, from the moment you find out you’re pregnant to all the crafts and classes they should experience when they’re three. You’ve prided yourself on having the right philosophy, suffering for doing good, making the transition from Non-Mom to Mom, and all of a sudden baby #2 comes along or your first starts meeting with playmates and it dawns on you…

My little one can’t share!

They also can’t wait their turn, let anyone else have the new toy, let anyone else have fun with the old toys, make the louder siren sounds, eat a cracker they don’t have, or generally avoid competition over everything. “Me First, Me Best, Me Most” is the name of the game. Jealousy and suspicion run high. But you’re not that way! That’s not what you modeled! What went wrong?

The problem is that your child is not able to Do Unto Others yet. He is not able to look at your behavior and think to himself, “That’s what Mom does with me. That’s what I should do with others.” That is too hard for even most teenagers to realize, let alone your three year old. Your firstborn is used to getting things first, best, and most because there’s never been anyone else to compete with. And assuming that YOU don’t act like a three year old =) how is he to know what other three year olds are going to expect from him?

I’ve had a tough time with this myself because our children are spaced closely together. And even though I have four small ones, my oldest is still the handful, still the one I am always correcting, and still the one I worry about most… Is he ever going to get it? I could never figure out why he had Firstborn Syndrome so badly when he had another sibling come along so early in life (by 15 months old). But now I realize that acquiring a sibling early in life as a toddler still cannot compete with growing up with others from Day One. When a person is born into life with others around that Mommy has to take care of, pay attention to, help, discipline, etc., it is truly a whole other experience. That is why subsequent children are critically different in the area of recognizing the role of others in their lives. They may be Type A personalities, fun, extraverted, bossy, or all kinds of other go-getting traits, but they will not be as socially/emotionally misunderstood as your Firstborn feels when he/she initially encounters significant others in their lives.

So how can you help this?

It can be hard, especially if you’re one of those moms who really tried to do everything right. You’ve respected your little baby, toddler, preschooler, and now they aren’t able to respect anyone else. You have to start turning their worldview around, slowly, from The World Exists for Me, to I am a Special Part of the World. In particular, you need to gently start inserting age-appropriate boundaries between them, you, and what they want. When they learn that not all words, toys, opportunities, and Mommy space is for them, but they have their own turns for attention, they will start balancing out. Make it a project for the year to raise consciousness about how they are making other people feel around them. Here are some things I’ve tried at home:

1. Make your firstborn talk to other children. Firstborns are notoriously grown-up oriented. They seem to ignore other children at times because grown-ups give out more praise and attention. So they interfere with other parent’s playtimes at the playground, take over your adult friends when they visit the house, and ask about what you said or did with everyone else. Some grown-up attention is warranted, of course, but the better strategy is to redirect your Leading Actor from talking to adults to talking to any children who are around, even babies. In our home, my firstborn wants to tell me everything from the dream he dreamed last night to the new word he just read to how his shirt is tickling his arm. Rather than try to teach him which things are important to talk about, I have switched to smiling and saying, “That’s interesting. Tell your brother (sister) about it.” His siblings are usually interested anyway! And it gets him out of the seek-Mommy-for-attention mode and into realism… his siblings usually don’t praise every achievement or coo over every wound.

Try this approach at the playground if your child is a drama queen or in your house when showing off behavior comes. Encourage your child even to talk to babies, whom they usually ignore because babies give no acknowledgment whatsoever. But it is healthy for your firstborn to adjust to a peer-centered world because it helps them get perspective (without guilt).

2. Adopt boundaries when you are talking or doing something with others. If your child, like mine, is all ears for every conversation in the house, adopt some nice maxim to let them know where their ears or input are not wanted. Sometimes I ask my firstborn, “Who is Mommy talking to?” when he wants to answer or comment on what I’m saying to a sibling. Or I say, “It’s between Mommy and Daddy” when my firstborn wants to ask or comment on what I told Daddy. If he persists, I say “Honey, Mommy is not going to talk about this with you.” or something slightly firmer. But always in a nice way… don’t foster bitterness.

3. Utilize time-out for real showing off behavior. When your firstborn has just a learned a new skill, any visitor becomes a prime audience. A little bit is ok, but if your four year old daughter is still plie-ing over your guests after about five minutes, or your kindergartner starts reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud for a second time, tell them they are wonderful but grown-ups are here to talk to grown-ups.  If they are truly interested in ballet and reading, they will happily move to a different room to do it.  If it is showing off, they will be upset.  Then the choice is: stay here and be quiet, or go to a different room and play.  No leeway.

4.  Have them look at the face of the offended party. When a young child hurts or rejects another child, they usually look at the ground. Or they go on their way as if nothing happened.  Don’t ever let them hurt someone else, even a baby, without stopping to pay proper attention.  Have them look at the face of the person with whom they ignored, stepped on, or stole from (or refused to share with), and go through a small dialogue about how they feel… “David, look at Matty. You hurt his feelings. See how he’s sad? He wanted to play trucks with you.”

5. Don’t ASK them questions like, “Don’t you want to share with Matty?” The answer is obviously no. Just gently command that they do so. “You should share with Matty. That’s the right thing to do. Come on, give him one of your trucks.” In my own house, assuming that my firstborn has more than one of his beloved item, if he can’t surrender one of them, he has to give all of them to me. But if this makes him happy, because it is out of spite, then I make him give them all to the other child for a short while. Only then can the child experience the pull that his toys (unreasonably) have on him. He has to learn that people’s feelings come first, that they trump that pull. If I do this with respect (not asking him to share something if it is brand new, or he just started playing with it, or only has one, etc.), then his conscience gets trained. He can try again later with the warning that he has to share his stuff.

Some people wonder about “forced” sharing.  It doesn’t make rational sense that making a kid share would cause them to want to.  But like all things with little kids, you can’t wait until they FEEL like sharing to share.  Some kids are sharers by nature, and this is wonderful.  But for those covetous ones who aren’t, the best way to get it in there is practice, practice.  If you start at 2 or 3, you’ll be surprised by the end of the year that they’ll probably get it.  A 4 or 5 year old starting can take longer.

6. Don’t foster possessiveness. Firstborns are notorious for feeling like others are invaders on their turf… they are using their cup, their slide, going to their school.  One way to help this is to try to avoid addictions or attachments altogether. I try not to let my oldest become addicted to anything that would make sharing harder than it is. No favorite cups, colors, toys, or foods. He has them, I mean, but I don’t cater to them… buying him MORE Lightning McQueen accessories, getting him his own personal dinnerware, or letting him carry around his Matchbox cars all day. This is almost anti-American =)  For my other kids, these basic things would probably be harmless. But for my firstborn, it just encourages possessiveness.

Also, watch your pronouns.  Try not to say “your” or “yours” unless it really is theirs, like their shoes, their hands, etc.  Don’t be weird, I mean, but use “the” or “our” for things which are collective property, especially movies, computers, furniture, toys, etc.  This will help enormously when you need to use something or another sibling/guest comes along.  It is important for little kids to know what things they need to protect anyway, and what things aren’t appropriate to share versus those that are.

7. Don’t allow upstaging or interruption. My oldest likes to talk louder so everyone can hear him, point out his own accomplishments…especially when a younger sibling is working hard on something he can already do, and race to sit by me if he sees someone else coming to get a spot. Gently, I expose his motives that he’s trying to keep someone else from getting attention, praise, or a space, and that other people need those things too. “Taking turns” seems to be the most helpful metaphor because that implies that he gets attention too, but just not at the same moment. (i.e. “Let Sally have her turn telling Mommy about the train, and then you can.”)  Personally, I believe it is ok to help older children learn the rule of letting younger children get what they want first, although there are some situations or children where it is not wise.

8. Give opportunities to help others and get praise for it. My firstborn is a natural director, so sometimes I give him service jobs that channel his controlling nature into something good. I look for things that he likes to do, that need to be done, and that the recipient benefits from, i.e. helping his little sister get her sandals on, going to see if the car is clean, teaching his brother the letter sounds.   This helps him see constructive uses for his personality but also practice seeing others’ needs. I try not to overpraise him for his work as much as play up how happy he made the recipient… “See her face? She is so happy that you got her shoes on! Now she can go play!”

9. Model sharing with him, in games if necessary.  Play turn-taking games, card games, or other exercises where you switch things.  Lots of little kids are really hesitant to let things go—their hands are always poised ready to grab—and this is something that needs practice.  You should do it one-on-one with him until he is sharing with you well… until he gets that with someone he loves, and can trust the sharing process, he won’t do it with others (who are not as trustworthy!)

10.  Put the shoe on the other foot in training exercises… Show him how it feels to be ignored, upstaged, taken from, beaten in a race, etc. Never ever be cruel, but consider some low-key narrated example for your little firstborn to actually feel bested so they can gain empathy for those they are besting. The best way to do this is to artificially replay the scenario that just happened, either with you playing the part your firstborn played and him playing the victim.  Or you can reenact with the two original parties in slow motion, narrating what happened.  You can have the parties switch positions as actors if necessary.  The point is not to enact revenge but to slow down and rehearse a situation that comes up a lot.

11.  Make him do the giving in normal situations. Make him give things to a cashier, take items upstairs to Daddy, give the baby his bottle, etc.  This makes letting go seem more natural.

12. Adopt some maxim you can use often like, “Let’s look at everybody” or “Think of others” whenever these situations come up. A 4 or 5 year old is definitely able to get the picture if you are saying this often, and while they probably can’t change their behavior on the spot, it will be planted in the back of their minds for later.

13. Community service or talking about giving things to others can go a long way too. Talking through how we give clothes away that we don’t need, making a casserole for a friend who had a baby, letting our neighbor borrow our CD, or wrapping up Christmas presents for kids who don’t have any, shows that giving is an easy, natural, and pleasant thing. All kids need to see this, and your firstborns most. Talking about all kinds of generous behavior as much as possible will give them the extra tools they need to internalize that type of message.

14.  Most Important: Make sure you are truly meeting your firstborn’s needs for love, possessions, and attention. Especially with siblings and playdates, they may legitimately feel lacking.  Or they may be scared of letting go of your attention, or of the position where they have the most attention by default.  Also, it is easy to fall into giving your child passive attention but not active.  Preschoolers and Kindergartners really need active talking with you where they knows you are paying specific attention and not needing to leave for some reason.  When you are confident that their love tanks are full, then you can be confident (and calm) during corrective activities.

More on Attachment Parenting

NOTE: Wow, this post has become so popular by people who hate it, I thought I’d post a quick comment here =)

WARNING: let’s not confuse “understanding” attachment parenting with “disagreeing” with it.  I do understand, and I do disagree.  For fairness’ sake, I am posting the (corrected) link that my critic below, “AK”, suggested so that people can read what attachment parenting is, straight from an advocate’s source.  I still totally disagree.  See my other posts on the subject for more on why I disagree philosophically, psychologically, and experientially.  My respect goes to those who have gotten it to work for them. My understanding goes to those who haven’t.

Also, I am trying to address the things which make attachment parenting distinct.  “Loving your child,” “being there for them,” “acknowledging or helping them to put words to their feelings” etc., are things ANY good mother would do!  It’s not fair to say that it is province of AP.

http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/melvin_konner.html

* * * this is a follow-up post * * *

A lot of people exploring attachment parenting want to know if there are disadvantages to this parenting style.  I think so.  In another post, I discussed what I liked about attachment parenting.  And I warned against authoritarian parenting.  Here I will discuss what I am concerned about, in attachment parenting.

I believe real AP ultimately causes problems for a child.  At least, in America.  Maybe the child doesn’t experience problems until they are older—maybe not until they are spouses trying to bond with each other, or parents trying to set boundaries with their own children.  But I believe that most AP children will eventually face at least some difficulties because AP overemphasizes dependency and physical contact for security.  It also underemphasizes the importance of independence, boundaries, and disappointment.  For a non-industrial society with little choice in matters, this upbringing might be fine.  But for modern Western society, it is inappropriate or unnecessary at best.

Of course it is our modern sensibilities that many AP advocates think are problematic.  They might say otherwise, but a casual observer of a real AP finds practices in eating, sleeping, and being held to be over the top.  Who is going to have skin to skin contact with their newborn 90% of the time?  And 25% of the time, for a one year old?  Who makes it through six years of co-sleeping? Or three years of breastfeeding?  Or all the in’s and out’s of AP (of which there are many depending on how radical you are)?  Not very many.

The truth is that AP crosses many boundaries.  Forgetting about how you definitely can’t be a working mom and practice AP—are you going to wear your baby to the office?  Even if you are a stay-at-home Mom, the limits are stretching.  It is hard to take a shower, clean your kitchen, or do anything that requires you to put the baby down if you have a fussy baby who cries a lot and you think crying is bad.  It is hard to help your other toddler toilet train, play some stimulating games with your preschooler, or have some one on one time with your kindergartner if you don’t create some regular nap times for the baby (in a crib!).  It is hard to have some peace time with your husband at night if you can’t space a feeding or lay Junior down.  Thankfully there are all kinds of cool props to help you wear your baby around the house, co-bed, etc.  And any mom with more than one little child at home has several of these props that she uses and loves!  But the AP mentality of trying to prevent an infant from crying, to precipitate all their needs before they need it, and to generally prevent all distress and insecurity is enough to make any mom neurotic!

Moreover, AP advocates insist their infants will grow up more empathic and well-adjusted.  I am not sure this is the case… if it is, it is probably because of the extra care and attention Mom gives her baby, not AP specifically.  (Teaching and love will always yield good results.)  A key difficulty I believe AP little children may face is independence problems. Independence is very important in our society, and preschoolers are expected to be able to navigate a classroom with some amount of confidence and initiative.  I actually found with my second son, who was held the most, cried the least, and seemed the most “bonded” to me as a baby, that he was the most fearful of my four children. Even though he was totally attached and secure with me, he wasn’t with other people.  Even today, at kindergarten age, he has a very tough time in a classroom.  The security just did not transfer over, as AP purports it will.

There are so many factors that go into making a child secure that even IF security was the number one issue for infants, it is too simplistic to rely on AP to give it to you.  In fact, my oldest born, who had the most structure and discipline of my babies, is the most confident of my children.  Probably because he had the most teaching!  He is also extremely bonded with his dad, not just me.  He isn’t cowed to try new things and meet new people.  His temperment was not related to how much he was held (which was not very much considering I was pregnant again when he was only six months old).  I can’t imagine the burden I would be feeling if I thought my having another child would cripple him for life because I couldn’t wear him, co-bed, etc.  We totally didn’t AP—we didn’t even breastfeed.  Maybe he is not the norm either, but there’s no reason to feel like your kid can’t grow up secure because you didn’t AP.  Which is how the experts make it seem.  Or that your AP babies will necessarily be more secure.

I know several families and relatives who have tried to adopt AP, with varying amounts of success.  All of them are stay-at-home moms who have two children or more now.  Here are some detractors I have observed:

1.  The “Limit” Problem.
While AP advocates usually say they have no problems with setting limits, they must have some secret that isn’t in the books.  With only one exception, the AP families I know really struggle with limits and discipline.  At least, with their one, two, and three year olds.  Starting with the eating, sleeping, and carrying protocol for infants, AP has encouraged families to override their own boundaries in these areas.  It logically leads to parents to override  them in others.  AP (or AP-wannabes) become welfare states for their children, trying to make the world at peace with their children.  They don’t want their children to experience disappointment, stress, or incompetence because that would make them cry and crying is the root of insecurity.  Same goes for being/playing alone.  And who wants to start making a secure infant only to wreck it with discipline at some magical age as a toddler?  They started out with no limits or times for eating, places or times for sleeping, limits or times for carrying, and then they didn’t know if/when to change that.  It didn’t seem natural to begin structure and discipline in other areas, so they became permissive and afraid of exerting their authority.  I love my friends but I really believe because their overall outlook was child-oriented, their toddlers are a lot like the kids on “Supernanny”!!

2.  The Physical Proximity Problem.
Most of the moms I know who practice AP generally have their kids all over them.  Not just during the first six months when it is pretty normal, but into the toddler and preschooler years.  If they aren’t still breastfeeding, they are still very dependent on physical closeness.  Preschool-age children still want to be with Mom in the shower, climb on her, and have her around at all times.  They don’t always learn to venture away from Mommy or play independently.  They don’t always learn to get down off Mom’s lap.  One AP friend of mine kind of jokes that she never wants her husband to have sex with her because she has been touched all day.  Another AP family I know has two boys who seem very secure but totally break down if Mom goes out.  Another AP family I know has two boys who actually do better when Mom goes out; when Dad is around (who does not AP), they seem pretty well-adjusted and normal but when Mom comes back, they are whiny and clingy.  This friend of mine marvels at this and generally feels resentful that Dad has an easier time with the kids when she puts in all the extra AP effort.

3.  The Dad Problem.
Associated with this is the triangle between Mom, Dad, and child.  Some dads are totally on board with AP (along the lines of Dr. Sears) and this can make a really good family system.  Some dads are really laid-back and generally are happy with whatever Mom is doing.  This usually makes an ok family system too.  But many Dads get frustrated with AP way before Mom does.  They generally want the bed back, Mom back, (Mom’s breasts back!), the evening time back, etc.  If Mom is overly involved with the infant care to the extent that Dad is third-party forever, this makes a bad marriage scenario.  And this doesn’t mean Dad is petty and whiny about it.  It is just that a newborn consumes Mom’s time appropriately and Dad is entitled to “get Mom back” over time.  If the one-year old is still pretty much getting the same attention as the newborn was, and the entire house and system has been oriented around the child, Dad has a right to feel left out or annoyed.  Especially if they have another baby after that.  He is an adult agent in the house who has his own ideas about how his children should be raised.  He has also chosen his spouse for adult needs that should be factored in as the baby ages.

Also, if Dad isn’t totally on board, he can overcompensate for what Mom isn’t doing… he can become more authoritarian or discipline-oriented because he feels Mom isn’t giving enough.  This is bad for the child and for the marriage.  Mom usually allies with the child in these situations because, after all, she’s the Main Parent.  She may be ok with the behavior, or not willing to compromise the attachment principles, to get more obedient children.  She may pressure Dad to change a lot.  But Dad needs to be a Main Parent too.  And he needs to be on Mom’s team, not against her.

4. The Aggressive or “Overly Secure” child.
Radical AP can be very child-centered to the extent that the infant grows up secure but no-one else does.  Meaning, if the high physical touch needs and limited crying system continues from infancy through toddlerhood, you can get a toddler who expects eating, sleeping, and everything else to be oriented around him.  And he might be upset when he finds out it’s not!  He can easily become  aggressive because he expects things on demand and/or Mom’s discipline is wishy-washy.  Or because she doesn’t discipline him at all (i.e. for hitting her) because she believes it is just a phase he’ll grow out of.  Peers, siblings, schools, and other caretakers aren’t going to find this ethic acceptable.  The artificial environment that Mom has so carefully constructed is going to be exposed when the toddler ventures into the unprotected playground a more regimented nursery.  It’s so important for toddlers to be exposed to structure, limits, and boundaries early—even through eating, sleeping, and body space, since those are the first things they learn about.  If Mom chooses not to make those things an issue, then eventually they will learn it some other way. So why not make it an issue when it’s age appropriate?  It’s been my experience that teaching my 9-month old that it’s naptime is not much different than teaching my 3-year old that it’s time to leave the store.

5.  The Passive Child
Radical AP can also produce the other extreme, a passive toddler, if care is not taken to graduate the physical proximity and emotional gratification as the infant grows.  This happened to one of my friends who AP’d their adopted daughter from Guatemala.  They did this with the best of intentions because they knew that where she was originally from, the very poor mothers slinged their infants almost all day.  Unfortunately, this caused a hip problem for their daughter because her legs didn’t develop right… she had to have several operations and even a body cast when she was first brought to America.  Anyway, once she came here (at six months old), her parents tried to fix the wrongs of the excessive carrying but still instituted AP to help her bond and adjust through that traumatic start in life.  However, they essentially got a “coddled” toddler who was fearful, withdrawn, and a little phobic. She never learned that she was an active agent because Mommy was always there, slinging her, giving her food whenever, moving her whenever she thought her baby needed it.  She just had to wait and Mommy would eventually get around to it.  Her cries were indistinct, her wanderings were sort of aimless and whiny, and her personality was generally “checked out” unless she was put in a new situation where people didn’t know her very well.  At those times she would be clingy and fearful. Now it’s likely that this child’s atypical beginning caused some portion of her problems, but the AP did not help.  In fact, this child is now 13 and her mother swears that what really turned her around was a lot of structure and discipline.  And a Montessori education.  She did AP as a baby because she thought it was most consistent with her daughter’s indigenous culture, and because she was afraid that the child’s needs would otherwise be unmet as an infant, and that that would be insecuring.  But it turned out that the child couldn’t own her own needs, or interpret what her body and emotions wanted, until she was responsible for them herself.

6.  The Religious Effect.
Whereas authoritarian parenting can produce unpleasant results, one of the results of AP is that advocates tend to get more radical over time.  The laundry list of things you are supposed to do to be “a good parent” grows and grows. First it’s natural childbirth.  Then it’s breastfeeding.  Then it’s extended breastfeeding.  Then it’s organic food, cloth diapers, and making your own baby wipes.  Then it’s no pacifiers and a sling.  Then it’s co-bedding.  Then it’s infant massage.  Then it’s environmentally friendly clothing and positive correction.  It’s always something!  They are the new preachers of our age.  I suppose it has to be that way because anyone who has raised a baby normally knows that just doing ONE thing, like nursing for a year or slinging little Joey, doesn’t by itself guarantee a secure preschooler.  Or a baby who doesn’t cry.  Normal parents also know that all the trims and trappings of the first year usually give way to doing things the way everyone else does things around the second or third year.  Then all your crazy behavior goes out the window because your daughter is watching Dora and eating a Fruit-Roll-Up at Grandma’s house just like all her other friends.  Did the year of slinging and organic peas really pay off?  Maybe, although the main difference between your daughter and the non-AP neighbor is that your daughter still doesn’t like sleeping in her own bed.  So in order to see “real” differences doing AP, you can’t just pick and choose a couple things, or do it for a year.  You have to really make it into a religion. (Then proselytize everyone else.)

* The bottom line is that AP as a comprehensive system for childraising creates neurotic parents and children who can have a hard time with independence or boundaries.  AP advocates will insist that attachment parenting does not lead necessarily to permissive parenting.  But the worldview is one where parental authority is reduced to facilitation, the child’s needs are assumed to be good, and behavior naturally matures over time.  This does not jive with my experience of trying to raise  four little ethical preschoolers every day!   What happens if the dependency doesn’t graduate to independency?  Or the demands don’t mature into self-monitoring?  Or security doesn’t stave off resentment of limits?
My opinion is that while there’s nothing wrong with babying a baby, there is something wrong with parents who believe their main job is to keep their infant happy, need-free, stress-free, and secure all the time.  It simply can’t be done!  Babies are so hard to control in this way since God makes them in all different ways, with all different digestive systems, temperments, and responses.  There is also something wrong with closing one’s eyes to the demands of modernity, and importing techniques from indigenous cultures.  Americans, for better or for worse, aren’t geared to excessive physical closeness and long-term breastfeeding on demand.  And American children, for better or for worse, are not being raised as citizens of an pre-modern, collective farming culture like the Kung San tribal children.  Our goals for our children are completely different, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that our baby-care techniques reflect that.

Self Esteem

Ok, I have a confession to make.  For my first two sons, I fell into the self-esteem trap of parenting.  You know, the “you can’t praise too much” trap?  Or sometimes it is said, “Make sure you give 10 good remarks for every 1 negative one.”  I really thought the more I heaped on praise, the better my children would feel about themselves.  Or at least I thought, if I avoided a lot of corrections, they would.

Turns out, I was wrong.  Like most moms, I sheltered my firstborn and he is now the most bitter and grumpy of my children.  Actually, he’s not too bad but in comparison to my third and fourth children, there’s no comparison to be made.  They are always happy, and my first is always needing a pick me up.  My second born is not too much better although he has a melancholy temperament (and always has) so I try not to take his sadness too seriously.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in my typical homeschooling routine.  I have just started homeschooling in the last two years, and my kids follow a predictable line up: my firstborn starts off well but usually gets grumpy and frustrated with work, my second born is not totally happy but is very excited when he gets to do something “bigger” that his older brother gets to do (i.e. write a sentence!).  My third, who is only four and not kindergarten age yet, happily begs to work throughout the day.  And my fourth is too happy to care whether she gets a turn to work or not.   HA!

Some of this is surely typical of birth order and homeschool in general.  It’s hard to pioneer, it’s easier to follow.  And things become more fun with time.  But I am also sure that it is more than a homeschooling phenomenon… it’s kind of the same in every area of life.  Part of this is, I believe, due to the self esteem problem and the motivation style differences in my children.

For my firstborn, my husband and I were the typical parents cooing over the baby and over-obsessing about his developmental milestones.  He had some speech problems, so that made us all the more myopic.  We taught him and tutored him, we played games, we took him to specialists, he went to preschool etc.  And he had lots and lots of attention and praise.  Now at age 6.5, however, he is mainly externally motivated.  He’s motivated by praise and attention, but he has a hard time being happy when he doesn’t have it.  ANd like any child, the more they have, the more they want.  So school is difficult not because he doesn’t have enough character to stick with it–he does.  But it isn’t a joy to him, and that’s the hard thing.  Every parent wants their child to ENJOY learning, to be a reader, to get enthralled with some subject and just take off.  But he isn’t intrinsically motivated… yet.  He doesn’t see the thrill in making up a story, coloring a picture, or working on a project.  He just wants to get it done and then it’s over.  He likes learning of course, because he likes to be smarter than everyone else.  I think it makes him feel good to know things (as real self esteem should!).  But he doesn’t like or embrace the path to getting there.  It’s a battle.

In fact everything in his life is like that… if it’s not being monitored, it falls apart.  Very conditional, externally motivated ethics.  My second born, whom we did not lavish attention on, is slightly better adjusted.  But because he too had some special needs as a preschooler (sensory issues), he is also very hard to praise.  He has pretty good intrinsic motivation actually, and loves to get into science, art, or English.  But when I try to make him feel better about himself, it never works. I  can praise and praise.  I can encourage and encourage, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. At 5.5yrs, he has a particularly salient perfectionism problem, and it is hard to get him to be happy with what he does.  It was like that when he was two and struggling with physical milestones, and all the praise in the world from me did not seem to convince him in his inner thoughts.  He’s mildly unconfident that what he does is good enough.

Now we come to my third and fourth children who, while they are far from perfect, are much more functional.  At least in the self-esteem department. I’ve never made an effort to praise them over and above—in fact, I’ve never worried about it—and they’re healthier!  They don’t seem hung up like their counterparts.  And I am sure letting the self-esteem education is part of it.  I’ve learned that the self-esteem really has to come from within.  It can’t be GIVEN or forced by an external party.  And in order for teh self-esteem to come from within, it has to be related to things the child can do for themselves.  So the more my children can do for themselves independently, the happier they are about it and the more intrinsically motivated they are to do it.  If I am happy about it too much, then I usurp their own happiness about it.  If I motivate it too much, then I usurp their motivation to do it.  There is a certain distance or disattachment that is important to healthy self esteem development.

That doesn’t mean I can be neglectful.  Being a passive and aloof parent will not yield a child who feels loved and praised.   But there is a certain KIND of distance which is very important to give a child, which I apparently did not give to my firstborn.  I tried to give it to my second born more, but he was hung up in a stage where he felt inept, and that went counteracted fora  long time.  So the kids have to experience victory for themselves, and they have to even initiate these victorious things.  The problem with my firsborn is that he doesn’t initiate things for himself—I have to be the initiator—so he can’t feel as happy about it.  That is one cycle of external motivation that is hard to break.  The areas where I don’t have any input (i.e. his lego building) tends to be the areas where he really excells and has his own fun.   ANd the more I push him to learn, even though he resents it at first, eventually becomes points of victory for him too because he gets more competence as he learns.

So it’s a tricky thing, but I just wanted to pass on the small bits of wisdom I’ve so far learned the hard way =)